The Sciences

String Theory is Losing the Public Debate

Cosmic VarianceBy Sean CarrollMar 31, 2007 7:20 PM

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I have a long-percolating post that I hope to finish soon (when everything else is finished!) on "Why String Theory Must Be Right." Not because it actually must be right, of course; it's an hypothesis that will ultimately have to be tested against data. But there are very good reasons to think that something like string theory is going to be part of the ultimate understanding of quantum gravity, and it would be nice if more people knew what those reasons were. Of course, it would be even nicer if those reasons were explained (to interested non-physicists as well as other physicists who are not specialists) by string theorists themselves. Unfortunately, they're not. Most string theorists (not all, obviously; there are laudable exceptions) seem to not deem it worth their time to make much of an effort to explain why this theory with no empirical support whatsoever is nevertheless so promising. (Which it is.) Meanwhile, people who think that string theory has hit a dead end and should admit defeat -- who are a tiny minority of those who are well-informed about the subject -- are getting their message out with devastating effectiveness. The latest manifestation of this trend is this video dialogue on Bloggingheads.tv, featuring science writers John Horgan and George Johnson. (Via Not Even Wrong.) Horgan is explicitly anti-string theory, while Johnson is more willing to admit that it might be worthwhile, and he's not really qualified to pass judgment. But you'll hear things like "string theory is just not a serious enterprise," and see it compared to pseudoscience, postmodernism, and theology. (Pick the boogeyman of your choice!) One of their pieces of evidence for the decline of string theory is a recent public debate between Brian Greene and Lawrence Krauss about the status of string theory. They seemed to take the very existence of such a debate as evidence that string theory isn't really science any more -- as if serious scientific subjects were never to be debated in public. Peter Woit agrees that "things are not looking good for a physical theory when there start being public debates on the subject"; indeed, I'm just about ready to give up on evolution for just that reason. In their rush to find evidence for the conclusion they want to reach, everyone seems to be ignoring the fact that having public debates is actually a good thing, whatever the state of health of a particular field might be. The existence of a public debate isn't evidence that a field is in trouble; it's evidence that there is an unresolved scientific question about which many people are interested, which is wonderful. Science writers, of all people, should understand this. It's not our job as researchers to hide away from the rest of the world until we're absolutely sure that we've figured it all out, and only then share what we've learned; science is a process, and it needn't be an especially esoteric one. There's nothing illegitimate or unsavory about allowing the hoi-polloi the occasional glimpse at how the sausage is made. What is illegitimate is when the view thereby provided is highly distorted. I've long supported the rights of stringy skeptics to get their arguments out to a wide audience, even if I don't agree with them myself. The correct response on the part of those of us who appreciate the promise of string theory is to come back with our (vastly superior, of course) counter-arguments. The free market of ideas, I'm sure you've heard it all before. Come on, string theorists! Make some effort to explain to everyone why this set of lofty speculations is as promising as you know it to be. It won't hurt too much, really. Update: Just to clarify the background of the above-mentioned debate. The original idea did not come from Brian or Lawrence; it was organized (they've told me) by the Smithsonian to generate interest and excitement for the adventure of particle physics, especially in the DC area, and they agreed to participate to help achieve this laudable purpose. The fact, as mentioned on Bloggingheads, that the participants were joking and enjoying themselves is evidence that they are friends who respect each other and understand that they are ultimately on the same side; not evidence that string theory itself is a joke. It would be a shame if leading scientists were discouraged from participating in such events out of fear that discussing controversies in public gave people the wrong impression about the health of their field.

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